Book Review — An Uncertain Glory
I begin this review with the authors’ quote of Shobhaa De, a political commentator.
The India we are lauding forms but a microcosm of this vast land. It is the India of the elite, the privileged, the affluent. The only India we want the rest of the world to see and acknowledge, because we are so damned ashamed of the other. Ashamed. And Ignorant.
No, this is not a half-full or half-empty glass situation nor can it be reduced to an individual being or not being an optimist.
I have long avoided reading Amartya Sen, perhaps because, deep down, I was of the view that his perspectives are very socialistic and my pro-market brain would not appreciate it. In this book, Sen, along with his co-author, Jean Dreze, explore the dimension of India that we don’t see in newspapers or television,. The part of India we see is usually filled with narratives of India that is “shining”, is “incredible”, supported aptly by advertisements of multi-million dollar homes, the latest BMW/ Audi cars, and a constant coverage of the crony triangle that includes Bollywood, Politics and Cricket, with an occasional sprinkle of demography-targeted sensational news. In this book, the authors cover the India that has not only not enjoyed the fruits of this growth, but also the one that’s constantly neglected.
The first and the most profound thing I learnt is that development is not the same as growth. It is very tempting to compare India by virtue of the shiny dimensions to the likes of America, when in reality this kind of comparison is not only preposterous, but also completely far fetching. The fact that America doesn’t find a mention through the vast majority of the book, except in one chapter for an entirely different reason, is proof that India Vs America is only for sensationalist media and casual bloggers. Even a India Vs China comparison, including the anti-democracy rhetoric, is misinformed, pre-mature and irrelevant.
The second most important aspect is that India, while telling a glamorous story on growth [in GDP terms], while still being a pack-leader among major economies hit by slow or no growth, is severely behind most of the BRICS countries, most of the ASEAN countries and even most of the South Asian countries, including in some cases, Pakistan, when it comes to social indicators. In that backdrop, a comparison with European or North American countries can only be, to use the authors’ phrase, “empirical non sense”
By the same token, I was pleasantly surprised, how well Tamil Nadu was doing, vis-à-vis the other states in India. Together with Kerala and Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu has been knocking out several of the social issues since the EVR days to right now. I have very many friends that are tired of the two-party politics that dominates Tamil Nadu, but will be pleasantly surprised to know that these 3 states top among the Indian states on almost every social indicator.
The third aspect I learnt is that markets are not a silver-bullet and they are not even a viable solution for India’s public services, where basic people needs such as drinking water, sanitation, education, healthcare, law & order and a transparent, working system of government have yet to be met. This view, prior to my reading this book, would have seemed hyper-socialist for me, but the authors explained in such detailed fashion why private sector cannot be [entirely] relied upon, how other countries achieved what they have through effective implementations of social policies in these areas and what role can private sector play in the growth of India.
Without going “all over the place”, the authors pick education, healthcare, poverty reduction, governance and democratic ideals and offer deep insights in that. In some specific cases, the authors sound pro-redistribution, something I usually cannot accept, but their conviction is so good, it can only mean the story-telling skill of these authors are too damn compelling and the data they provide is substantial. I am still not pro-redistribution, but the authors made me look at social spending in a new light, including the case of Food Security Bill, which I had openly ridiculed due to its incompatibility with the free market theory.
If you identify yourself, assuming you are honest, with Shobhaa De’s quote in the first paragraph, this is the book you should read.
A note on the book:
The first many chapters are condensed with tons of information, in tables, and the narratives once again referring to the tables. India’s dark underbelly is exposed without the rhetoric — there’s data and more data. Only thing that annoyed me is that, in every sentence, there is something like “this will be covered in Chapter 9”, “more on this later”, “we will return to this in detail in Chapter 10” — I mean, its not like they expect the reader to remember while reading Chapter 9 that there is a back-link to Page 53 of Chapter 2. However, towards the later chapters, it does get less data-oriented and flows well.